Media Trials- Hidden Behind the Veil of Freedom of Media

Anushaka Sharma [1]



This article talks about media trials in detail. It sheds light on what fair trials are and how they are obstructed by media trials. A number of cases with landmark rulings on media trial have been studied and their judgments analysed. Finally, an attempt has been made to find some conclusive measures against media trials and restoring the balance between freedom of media and a fair deliverance of justice in the country.

Keywords- media trials, fair trials, contempt of court


“I should rather have a completely free press, with all the dangers involved in the wrong use of that freedom, than a suppressed or regulated press.” These wise words said by Pt. Jawaharlal Nehru correctly sum up the debate about the media getting unrestricted freedom in a democracy vs. their freedom being regulated. This has been going on from times immemorial now. Media trials have been going on persistently ruining the sanctity that was endowed in the freedom of press. Despite many landmark judgments, media trials continue. The absence of stringent laws can be a factor when it comes to the continuance of these trials. In this article, an attempt is made to understand what media trials are and what is the perspective about it when it comes to our judiciary.


We all must have heard the word “Trial”, often in the field of justice. It is a setting where each party in a dispute gets an opportunity to present favourable facts and evidence before the Court. Trials play a vital role in the justice delivery system. Every case, every criminal, no matter what the crime is or who the victim is, deserves a fair trial under Article 21 of the Constitution of India.


A trial conducted by the required authority, eliminating of any kind of prejudice or bias is a fair trial. The Indian law has always upheld the importance of fair trials in the deliverance of justice. The Constitution of India under Article 21, entrusts the citizens of India with the right to a fair trial under the ambit of Right to life and personal liberty i.e. as per our Constitution, every suspect has a fundamental right under this article, to deserves a chance to a fair trial before being accused of a crime. Moreover, in the case of Mohd. Hussain @ Julfikar Ali v. The State (Govt. Of Nct), the court ruled that the right to a fair trial is a fundamental right under the Right to life and personal liberty.

If we look at it from an international perspective, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights never undermined the importance of fair trials. As per the Article 10 of the UDHR-

Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.”

Time and again, the right to a fair trial is upheld and celebrated by both international and Indian laws. There can not be a fair judgement in any court and justice can never be upheld if the suspects are not given the rightful chance to explain the nature of the incidents and the allegations against them. The doctrine of “Lex uno ore omnes alloquitur”, which says that law speaks to all in one mouth, is another important aspect of equality before law that makes the need of fair trials, indispensable if justice needs to prevail.


Media has often played a huge role in the process of upholding the truth by ensuring a free and fair trial in an unbiased manner. In the landmark case of Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Pvt. Ltd. v. Union of India (1984), Justice Venkataramiah in his judgment observed-

Freedom of the Press is the heart of social and political intercourse. The press has now presumed the role of the public educator making formal and non-formal education workable on a large scale, particularly in the developing world, where television or modern communication devices are still not available for all sections of society.”

Thus, the freedom of the press was not only upheld but also justified in this case. But we must realize that every institution in a democracy has the potential to hit its worst side and so does the Indian media.


Media is often referred to as the fourth pillar of the democracy as it actively participates in the socio-political affairs of the State. However, this participation is termed as “media trial” when the media sabotages the functions of Courts. The media barges in and declares the name of the convict, with not a lot of conclusive evidence but with utmost assurance to its viewers. This leaves little scope for the public to perceive the reasoning and assessment of the court of law. Hence, media trial has become a force that dismantles the thought behind “innocent until proven guilty”.


In the most recent case of media trail, Rhea Chakraborty v. State of Bihar, we witness how the media, with no conclusive evidence, influenced many people to believe that the suspect is the culprit. The majority viewers of these news channels believed it to be a credible source of news. so much that they defied the presumption of ‘innocent until proven guilty’. The media personnel took a strong stance about every single development of the case that after a point of time, the news they delivered seemed to be extremely manipulated as to fit their inclination. The question here is not if the right person i.e. the real culprit (if any) was criticized by the media or not, rather the question is why does the media collectively target a person long before substantial accusations of the Court. The consequences suffered by this trial were very evident.

The amount of loss of reputation in this case, even before any court could interfere, lawfully, was huge. The main suspect in the case was meted with allegations, questions, and circumstances similar to any convict. Famous news anchors were seen calling the suspect in this case as a “murderer” and a “gold-digger”.

An eminent judge, Justice H.R. Khanna said the following about media trials-

"Certain aspects of a case are so much highlighted by the press that the public gives rise to strong public emotions. The inevitable effect of that is to prejudice the case of one party or the either for a fair trial. We must consider the question as to what extent are restraints necessary and have to be exercised by the press to preserve the purity of the judicial process".

The above words correctly hint towards media trials directly affecting the essence of fair trials, a basic fundamental right entrusted by the Constitution of India. Yes, the media does have a freedom of speech expression under Article 19(a) of the Constitution of India but in all fairness, Article 19 (2), which talks about how none of the clauses of Article 19 (1) are absolute and they can be subjected to certain restrictions, when the need be. Here, The suspect’s right to a free trial under Article 21 was indirectly violated when she was termed a murderer by many big media houses. The media in this case, violated a citizen’s fundamental rights in the disguise of performing their own right, and this shows the importance of the restrictive clause of Article 19 . Considering, how the suspect, herself was a public figure, a lot of her reputation and credibility was sabotaged to a great extent. The murder angle in the case is still not proved and the authorities are still working the case but the media was so quick to label someone a murderer. To understand, how grave this was, a senior advocate of the Supreme Court, Meenakshi Arora said,

We don't know whether or not she’s guilty, but the media trial seriously jeopardized her chances. It will also put extreme pressure upon the judge who has to decide the case.

These words clearly suggest the negative impact and the pressurizing situation, media trials create for the suspects, the courts and the judges. They hamper the right way of solving a case by creating a false image in the minds of the people who further create a huge amount of turbulence in the deliverance of justice. These are the consequences of media trial where hatching narratives based on inconclusive evidence leads to jeopardization the justice itself.


As per Section 2(c) of the Contempt of Courts Act, 1971, criminal contempt of court can be categorized into-


ii)creating prejudice in trial

iii) creating obstacle for deliverance of justice.

Media trials often create an atmosphere of pressure and domination which leads to citizens forming prejudiced opinions about those who are involved in the case.

In the case of Y.V. Hanumantha Rao v. K.R. Pattabhiram and Anr., Justice Gopal Rao Ekkbote, summed up the relation between media trials and Contempt of Court wherein, he said,

"Even if the person making the comment honestly believes it to be true, still it is a Contempt of Court if he prejudices the truth before it is ascertained in the proceedings. To this general rule of a fair trial, one may add a further rule and that is that none shall, by misrepresentation or otherwise, bring unfair pressure to bear on one of the party to a cause to force him to drop his complaint or defence.”

This judgment is one of the landmark judgements in my opinion because it captures the nuances of media trials and its fine link with Contempt of Court. It is a very all round explanation of the undermined consequences of media trials. Often times, because of the pressure and the negative environment that media trials lead to, the suspects are stripped off the chance to explain the allegations against them because the public out roar creates a very unsafe environment for them. Threats like physical attacks and stalking limit their chance to fair proceeding by making the entire process threatening to them to the point where often the suspects are forced to not even try to clean their image and drop their defence arguments. This is certainly an obstruction to justice and does created an obvious prejudice in the mind of the jurors and the pubic at large. These consequences created by media trials, can be labelled as contempt of court under Article 2(C)(ii) and Article 2(C)(iii) of the Contempt of Court Act, 1971.

Thus, it highlighted the gravity of a media trial and indicated that it should be avoided at any cost as it can change the course of a case too far away from true justice leading to contempt of court.


Justice A.K. Sikri correctly summed up the state of media trials today-

“Media trials were there earlier also. But today what is happening is that when an issue is raised, a petition is filed, (and) even before it is taken up by the court, people start discussing what should be the outcome. Not what ‘is’ the outcome, (but) what ‘should be’ the outcome. And let me tell you from my experience here that it has an influence on how a judge decides a case.”

In the case of State of Maharashtra vs. Rajendra Jawanmal Gandhi, the Apex Court ruled strongly against media trials and described it as “Anti-thesis of rule of law”. Anti-thesis of something can be defined as its stark contrast or difference. Here, the judge went so ahead as to label media trials as the complete opposite of law itself. Law which should actually make us all feel equally empowered is completely shown in a different light when it comes to media trials. Any person, a suspect or a victim, should always feel like they do have a voice which will be heard by law. But media trials, completely deprive a lot of us, of this voice. The Article 14 of the Constitution of India which promises an equal treatment of all in the eyes of law, is violated when media trials devoid people of this chance to an equal treatment by violating their rights and curbing their voice.

This ruling further explained how the judge should guard his reasoning and make a judgment that is free from premonitions and presumptions. This rightly sheds lights on how media trials continue to obstruct the deliverance of justice, sometimes by creating an atmosphere of public-pressure which disturbs and deviates the course of justice and often times by obscuring the reasoning of the judges who are entrusted with giving a fair ruling.

Even in United Kingdoms, one of the very eminent judges, Lord Denning believed that the judges should not be affected by media trials and what it makes people believe. Another eminent judge, Lord Dilhorne used to believe in the opposite and supported the idea that if common men can feel a disturbance in their reasoning because of what the media presents, then so can the judges. There has always been a tussle between how should the judiciary view media trials. Another important example of this tussle was seen in the case of John D. Pennekamp v. State of Florida, where the judge ruled-

No Judge fit to be one is likely to be influenced consciously, except by what he sees or hears in Court and by what is judicially appropriate for his deliberations. However, Judges are also human and we know better than did our forebearers how powerful is the pull of the unconscious and how treacherous the rational process—and since Judges, however stalwart, are human, the delicate task of administering justice ought not to be made unduly difficult by irresponsible print.”

Here, the Court understood the crossroads of rationality and conscience, judges face when it comes to media trials and concludes its ruling asking the media to be more careful wit their information since it has the power to make the deliverance of justice difficult for the judiciary. This ruling, very well, explains the responsibility of media to keep a check on their content and freedom. It is rightly concluded that it is the media and NOT the judges that needs to get more careful and abstain from disseminating false information and inconclusive claims.

In the case of Kartongen Kemi Och Forvaltning Ab vs State Through Cbi 2004 (72) DRJ 693, (also knowns as the Bofors case), the Delhi High Court said the following and remarked on the serious consequences of the media trials. The judgment observed that “Again, it cannot be excluded that the public becoming accustomed to the regular spectacle of the run, pseudo trials in the news media might, in the long have nefarious consequences of the acceptance of the courts as the proper forum for the settlement of legal disputes.”


We can very well see the need for a balance between free media and the protection of fundamental rights of the citizens of India . In today's world, the media has the kind of freedom that can work so powerfully in favour of the truth, justice, and in creating a society of our dreams but this reach and freedom that this pillar has gained for itself, if misused, can drag so many people down. In a democracy, undoubtedly, the media plays a vital role by acting as a bridge between the people of the country and their elected representatives. This is the very reason people have trusted the media for a long time. However, there is a fine line between presenting facts and analysing those facts to pass a judgment. Today, this line has blurred for both, the viewers and the presenters.

The most effective measure against media trials is to declare them as a Contempt of Court under the Contempt of Court Act, 1971, as explained in detail in the above sub-heading of “IS MEDIA TRIAL A CONTEMPT OF COURT? The formation of bodies like the Press Council of India, to ensure better conduct by the media, gives us a lot of hope when it comes to growing malpractices in journalism since they have the power to regulate the content and the information media disseminates to the public. This check can curb the menace of media trials which often stems from the misuse of their freedom by the media. We need to understand that Article 19(1) of the Constitution of India gives us the freedom to speech and expression and therefore, empowers the media with all the weapons it needs to fight all kinds of evils around us. But with power comes responsibility and so the media should be careful of Article 21 which gives every person the right to a fair trial and needless to mention that the media trials do hamper with this right by creating prejudice in the minds of people and obstructing the course of justice. It has become very important that while preserving the freedom awarded to the media, we also keep a check on the misuse of this freedom. We need to reject the media trials and discourage news houses or newspapers who indulge in the same.


[1] Anushaka Sharma is a law undergraduate from Jindal Global Law School. For any discussion related to the article, she can be contacted via mail:

Preferred Citation – Anushaka Sharma, Media Trials- Hidden Behind the Veil of Freedom of Media", Syin & Sern Law Review, Published on 3rd January, 2021.

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